Opioids are nothing new to the world, but prescription opioid use has caused drastic changes in the rates at which heroin addiction and overdoses are occurring in the United States. As observed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, prescription pain pills may serve as a sort of gateway drug to heroin use, abuse, and addiction.
What is Heroin?
Heroin is an opioid drug derived from the seeds of the opium poppy plant. It produces a euphoric high as well as pain-relieving effects when consumed. Heroin is one of the most widely abused illicit substances in the United States, and it is one of the most deadly. Although this drug is derived from a naturally occurring substance, heroin is typically made in make-shift illicit labs where ingredients, quality, and processes can vary drastically. These unknowns increase the risks associated with heroin addiction.
When it comes to identifying heroin, it is not always as straightforward as it may seem because heroin can be found in a number of different forms. The forms heroin is found in can range from a powder to a tar-like substance.
White heroin – The most “pure” form of heroin commonly found, white heroin is a powdery or crystalline substance. Still, even white heroin could be mixed with filler compounds such as baking soda, sugar, rat poisoning, etc.
Brown heroin – Also found as a crystal or crushed powder, the darker color in brown heroin is from impurities developed during the production process.
Black tar heroin – Black tar heroin is the cheapest and most impure type of heroin. It is extremely dangerous and is named after its thick texture and dark appearance.
Heroin is a fast-acting substance that quickly binds to the mu, or opioid receptors in the body. When these chemicals bind to the receptors, they trigger the release of hormones that create feelings of pain relief, pleasure, and euphoria. They also affect the user’s heart rate, breathing, and consciousness.
- Decreased heart rate
- Slowed breathing
- Dry mouth
- Increased body temperature
- Reduced or lack of consciousness
- Nausea & vomiting
- Itchy sensation
- Clouded judgment
- Impaired decision making
Dangers of Heroin Use
In addition to the effects listed above, there are numerous dangers associated with heroin use. These are things that could ultimately change the whole trajectory of your life, or even end it. The dangers of heroin use include addiction, long-term health issues, overdose, and death.
A consequence of the rise in prescription opioid use: many individuals ultimately begin using heroin and succumb to a severe addiction. This substance is both physically and psychologically addictive. It has mind-altering effects users may chase to escape pain and it is common to develop a physical dependence. Heroin addiction can alter the trajectory of any individual’s life significantly. Someone who is addicted to heroin faces the reality of withdrawal symptoms when they stop using. Additionally, heroin addiction makes it difficult to complete day to day tasks and responsibilities, including:
- Caring for children
- Going to work
- Maintaining proper hygiene
- Managing finances
- And so much more
While the immediate risks of heroin use are fearful in their own right, the long term health issues this drug can cause should not be overlooked. The list of health issues seen in those who do or did use heroin is lengthy:
- collapsed veins
- damaged tissue inside the nose
- infection of the heart lining and valves
- stomach cramping
- liver disease
- kidney disease
- mental disorders (i.e. depression or antisocial personality disorder)
- sexual dysfunction
- irregular menstrual cycles
A heroin overdose happens when more of the substance enters the bloodstream than the body is able to handle. The body tries to cope but is simply unable to. Some individuals who overdose will begin to vomit, and if they are on their back they then can aspirate, choke, and die. If a 3rd party observes an overdose, acts quickly and appropriately, then they may be able to save the overdosing individual’s life. Narcan is a medication that if administered in time can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose. Unfortunately, even if a heroin user lives through an overdose, it is possible that they will suffer irreversible brain damage.
For those who overdose on heroin, death is a very real possibility. Survivors of overdoses may see this as a wake-up call – that it is time to stop using. For those who are unable or unwilling to stop using heroin, an overdose-related death is not just possible, but inevitable.
Heroin Addiction Treatment
Treating a heroin addiction can take multiple tries and an array of therapy options. The process can be challenging and ugly, but also rewarding and lifesaving. The best thing to do for yourself or a loved one who is struggling with heroin is to get professional help. Contact an addiction treatment facility that treats heroin use disorders.
The recovery process starts with detox. During the first few days following cessation of heroin use, withdrawal symptoms may begin to present themselves. Depending on the frequency, length of use, and amount used, symptoms may be more or less severe. For the most part, heroin withdrawal resembles that of a severe case of the flu: chills, headache, fever, sweating, aching, irritability. However, it is the severe cravings that many find the most difficult symptom to overcome.
Heroin detox programs are designed to manage and minimize heroin withdrawal symptoms. A medical detox program may offer Subutex or Suboxone, medications that minimize withdrawal symptoms. Some programs also provide alternative therapies such as yoga, acupuncture, massage, and more.
Following detox, some patients may stay in an inpatient or residential treatment facility for 30, 60, or 90 days. These programs provide the benefit of 24/7 supervision and care, a safe, temptation-free residence, nutritious meals, entertainment, and more. However, residential treatment is not always accessible or realistic for recovering addicts and it is not a permanent arrangement.
Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)
PHP is a treatment option that provides a high level of care including full-time programming, and typically helps clients get placed in a sober living environment while completing the program. PHP can be a great alternative to or next step after inpatient treatment.
For those who have completed higher levels of care, Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) and Standard Outpatient Treatment(OT) can provide long term care at fewer hours per week. IOP and OT provide flexibility for clients to be able to work, go to school, and otherwise return to daily activities while still making time to work on their recovery.